Before we get started with today’s gawping at an artist stumbling out of mothballs, I’d like you to do me a favor. I want you to look back at your life and think about the times you’re most nostalgic for — those golden moments when, even if you didn’t fully appreciate it (and let’s face it, you probably didn’t), the world was a little simpler, a little kinder, and filled with possibilities that seemed a little brighter.
Feels a little bittersweet looking back now, doesn’t it?
Well, buck up, Tiger, and pat yourself on the back, because as much as you might wish you could recapture the glory days of your frittered youth, you can at least take comfort in knowing you’ve never recorded an album whose sole purpose is to sound exactly like the one you made 20 years ago. Unless you’re one of the Nelson brothers, in which case we’re here to talk about your new release, the hopefully titled Lightning Strikes Twice.
Cruel as that last sentence may sound, I’m really not here to bury Nelson. I turned 16 in May of 1990, right around the time the twins first bathed the pop charts in all their blond, well-muscled glory, and I will freely cop to playing the fuck out of my cassingle copy of their smash hit, “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection),” all summer long, as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, their full-length debut, After the Rain. Like the Bee Gees, only better-looking and without that one brother in the hat who hardly ever sang (His name was Maurice and you know it. Stop being mean. –Ed.), Nelson offered huge hooks and eerily tight harmonies during a time when the youth of our nation badly needed them.
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But what Nelson couldn’t have known — what none of us truly understood — was just how quickly the world would grow numb to their hawk-nosed, androgynous splendor. At the time, taking a pair of twins with womanly manes, dressing them in phony Native American garb, and sending them into the studio to record politely loud, supremely polished rock anthems about fallin’ in love and breakin’ up and stuff seemed like the failsafe breakthrough the music industry had been praying for. Alas.
I’ll share a brief personal story to demonstrate how quickly Nelson’s star faded. As I mentioned, when “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” was released, my friends and I played it nonstop, and we listened to After the Rain throughout the summer. But when Nelson came to town in August — August! — and we somehow ended up with eight free tickets to the show, we all just kind of shrugged and decided to find something else to do.
Fickle fame, thy surname is Nelson.
Of course, radio being what it is, “Love and Affection” didn’t hit the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 until September, and After the Rain kept churning out singles until the following spring, when “More Than Ever” reached the Top 20. Nelson, meanwhile, headed back into the studio to record their follow-up, where they inadvertently discovered the surprisingly simple formula for a five-year gap between your first and second albums. Here it is:
1. Record a concept album.
2. Call it Imaginator.
3. Play it for your label.
Nelson was next heard from in 1995, when their sophomore release, Because They Can, reached stores with a pair of wig-bedecked William Wegman dogs on the front cover. The end.
Well, in America, anyway. But they still had plenty of fans in other parts of the world, so they hunkered down, started their own label, and released a flurry of albums between 1996 and 2000 (including Imaginator — take that, Geffen!), as well as starring (sort of, I guess) in the Nelson: Rock & Roll Detectives cartoon series. Over the years, the Nelson brothers have plugged along doggedly, performing on cruise ships, at Disney World, on tribute tours for their dad — pretty much anywhere they could get a gig — and that down-to-earth work ethic, coupled with the fact that they seem like genuinely nice guys (and the fact that “Love and Affection” is still 1,990% awesome), has ensured that while they may have been a flash in the pan, they’re remembered more fondly than, say, Color Me Badd.
But I guess that wasn’t good enough, because as the 20th anniversary of After the Rain‘s release rolled around, Nelson got busy writing and recording Lightning Strikes Twice, a 12-song time machine that apes the sound of the era as convincingly as anything I’ve ever heard. This album is stuffed with all the sonic gewgaws that made the AOR of the late ’80s and early ’90s so special: stacks of shiny guitars (chorused leads! Glistening acoustics! Crunchy rhythms!), whorls of hairsprayed harmonies, flanged drums, and well-timed cries of “whoo!” And as an added benefit, the lyrics are still all about fallin’ in love and breakin’ up and stuff. The brothers might look a little more tired than they did 20 years ago, but they sound exactly the same:
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Like an asshole, I went back and listened to After the Rain again, so I could point out all the ways Lightning Strikes Twice emulates it while falling slightly short in the songwriting department, only to discover that Lightning is actually a better album. So what we have here, in a sort of brain-exploding twist of fate, are a couple of guys who waited until 2010 to make a better 1990 album than the one they originally recorded in 1990. The mastering is probably a little too bright, but in the exceedingly shrill context of everything else these days, that’s a relatively minor complaint; what matters is that the songs are punchier and more consistent — and there aren’t any instrumental interludes bogging things down between all the melodic rockin’.
How did this happen? Why did it happen? Who does it help? When you’re comparing albums on a scale that starts with Nelson’s After the Rain, does anyone win? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I’m just one befuddled man, caught between twins who won’t stop doing that ’80s rock guy dance while playing guitar and singing in flawless harmony. All I can do is sit here and wait for Color Me Badd to make a sequel to C.M.B.